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Chicago - Larger than Life

Posted By Andrea Curry, Monday, January 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chicago Skyline"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” When architect Daniel Burnham gave this advice in his 1909 city plan, Chicago listened. Making no little plans, the generations of architects and builders since Burnham have designed and created a city of superlatives, where "biggest,” "best,” and "first” are the right words to describe dozens of city attractions.

The best way to orient yourself to Chicago – and to take a heavy dose of that Chicago magic that stirs men’s blood – is to ascend one of the city’s tallest buildings for a panoramic view out over "Chicagoland.” The Sears Tower, elegant and amazing, is the world’s fourth-tallest building overall (including antennae); but has the world’s highest occupied floor. From the 103rd-floor Skydeck Observatory, views sometimes extend 40 miles in every direction.

Chicago’s third-tallest building, the John Hancock Building, has its own observatory with its own charms. It’s the perfect place for a non-neck-straining look at the Sears Tower, and the open-air viewing deck allows you to test the weather at over 1000 feet above street level. Some visitors head to the 96th-floor Signature Room bar or the 95th-floor restaurant instead of the 94th-floor observatory; that way, they can purchase a drink or a meal instead of a ticket.

The Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building are just two of many reasons Chicago deserves its reputation as "the world capital of modern architecture.” The Federal Complex Center, the IBM Building, and the Bank One Building are three notables, each reflecting the "less-is-more,” "integrity-to-materials” ethos of modern architecture in the International Style. A city tour with the Chicago Architectural Foundation is the best way to learn about Chicago’s rich architectural history. Tours travel on foot, or by bus, bicycle, or boat.

Amid so much glass and steel, Chicago’s Art Deco and Gothic Revival skyscrapers really stand out. Observers have compared the shining white Wrigley Building, an example of the former, to a wedding cake, a sand castle, and Sleeping Beauty’s Disney palace. The nearby Tribune Tower makes an opposite impression. Inspired by Rouen Cathedral, its flying buttresses and gargoyles leave you expecting a swarm of bats to descend suddenly from an upper story. Pick up a flyer from the lobby to guide you through the hundreds of "borrowed” stones embedded in the exterior walls, from buildings like the Alamo, the Parthenon, the Berlin Wall, the Kremlin, and Westminster Abbey.

During Chicago’s long and blustery winters, the indoor visual arts scene may seem much more enticing than either Chicago’s architecture or its many famous outdoor sculptures. The Art Institute is a world-class museum, most famous for housing the best collection of Impressionist and Postimpressionist works outside of France. Don’t limit your tour to the Impressionist highlights, however. The Art Institute is a complete art history education, with masterpieces from every culture and period.

The Art Nouveau decorative arts style flourished here in the early 20th century, and stunning examples appear both within the Art Institute and scattered across the city. At the old Marshall Field’s store on State Street (now a Macy’s), the largest Tiffany mosaic anywhere covers the 6000-square-foot north atrium ceiling in iridescent glass. The 38-foot Tiffany dome in the Chicago Cultural Center is also the largest of its kind. Visitors can wander through the entire Cultural Center, and take in its rich, marble- and mosaic-clad interiors. The Chicago Office of Tourism is also inside. This building and the old Marshall Field’s are both in the northeastern part of the Loop; the Art Institute is across South Michigan Avenue from the Loop, in Grant Park.

South of the Art Institute, Chicago’s other large museums also have a few superlatives to call their own. The world’s largest collection of aquatic creatures swims, wriggles and scuttles its way along in the Shedd Aquarium. These animals live in re-created habitats as distinct and surprising as a 90,000-gallon Caribbean coral reef and a four-million-gallon Pacific Northwest aquarium.

After exploring Earth’s waters, explore its skies at the nearby Adler Planetarium, the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. Also nearby, the Field Museum Of Natural History’s 20 million artifacts reflect Victorian America’s collecting fervor, with exhibits expertly updated for more recent generations. The belle of the Field Museum’s ball is Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever discovered.

While the museums above welcome their share of Chicago’s 32 million annual visitors, the Museum of Science and Industry is actually the city’s most popular attraction. The Coal Mine exhibit takes visitors on an underground ride through a replica coal mine. There is at least one smaller-than-life exhibit in this larger-than-life city: movie star Colleen Moore’s Fairy Tale Castle. The miniature castle took 19 years to complete, and contains over 1000 tiny treasures. Another popular exhibit allows visitors to tour a U-505 German submarine. In 1944, this U-boat sank eight Allied ships off the coast of West Africa, before becoming the first enemy vessel captured at sea since 1815.

On the Museum Campus (where Shedd, Adler, and Field are located) and at the Museum of Science And Industry, interactive exhibits and delighted children can together make quite a bit of noise. The Harold Washington Library is an oasis of calm and quiet in the midst of the city, and a book-lover’s paradise, with more than two million volumes. The noble, neoclassically designed library is also the largest public library building in the world. The top-floor Winter Garden offers a refuge of both quiet and warmth. Read a book at one of the cafe tables, and enjoy the foliage, and the sunlight through the glass ceiling.

The library’s eighth floor houses the Jazz, Blues, and Gospel Hall of Fame. Here you will find the nation’s largest blues archive, along with lots of intriguing background on the development of America’s distinctive musical styles. Chicago, like New Orleans, St. Louis, and Memphis, has played an important role in the history of the blues. Dozens of blues clubs still jam across the city, and many people consider the Chicago Blues Festival (late May/early June) to be the best in the world. Chicago also annually hosts a Gospel Music Festival (June), a Country Music Festival (June), a Jazz Festival (August), and a World Music Festival (September). The blues event, however, is the largest and most popular. For current live music listings in all genres, pick up a copy of the Chicago Reader, or check it out online.

Chicago also deserves its reputation as a world-class city for classical music. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays at the 2600-seat Orchestra Hall on South Michigan Avenue. "Rush” seating sometimes allows the money-wise to grab an unreserved seat, at a much-reduced price, right before the show. Other venues around town, like the Chicago Cultural Center, Fourth Presbyterian Church, and Holy Name Cathedral, host smaller, free concerts throughout the year. The Chicago Chamber Musicians give free performances in the Cultural Center, at lunchtime on the first Monday of each month.

Along with its reputation as a great city for architecture, art, and music, Chicago is known for at least one negative superlative, largely undeserved. Chicagoans report that people from other countries, when they hear Chicago mentioned, often mime machine-gun action and bring up Al Capone. After all these years, "Scarface” is still Chicago’s most famous resident! Movies (like The Untouchables), books, and even comics (like Dick Tracy) have immortalized Chicago’s history of organized crime. Writers from Raymond Chandler to Sara Paretsky and Scott Turow have also gone beyond Capone in their imaginations of Chicago’s criminal underbelly. While parts of the city (especially some portions of the South Side, and the West Side west of the Gold Coast) are dangerous, don’t let the fictional portrayals of crime and corruption unduly influence your itinerary. Chicago is only about the 52nd most dangerous city in the U.S. Just use caution, and stick to well-traveled and well-lit areas.

Although the reputation is worse than the reality, perhaps the city ‘s bad name for crime has helped to keep Chicagoans unpretentious, and down-to-earth even as their builders have propelled day-to-day life into the skies. Or maybe it’s their dogged, loyal love for the best baseball team that never wins. 2008 will mark the 100-year anniversary of the Cubs’ last World Series win. And who knows? Maybe 2008 will be the year. Either way, don’t miss the chance to take in a game at the ivy-covered, tradition-honored Wrigley Field. The cheapest tickets cost only $6. The White Sox are less popular but more successful, having won the World Series as recently as 2005 (and before that, in 1917!). The Bears and the Bulls also draw huge crowds in their respective seasons, and give visitors a chance to join in on local excitement.

Scott Turow used the Cubs as a prime example when he declared Chicago "The Capital of Real Life.” "People tell me that they like Chicago, extolling it as ‘a real place, a real city.’ And that it is...no glamour, no jive...New York City is the city of winners; Chicago’s where there are losers too. L.A. is the home of stars. Just Plain Folks live in Chicago.” That’s how Chicago has earned another superlative: "Friendliest big city in America.” Big business and big politics haven’t overshadowed the presence of millions of ordinary, "just plain” people.

Many writers have instead described Chicago as a giant memorial to human striving and achievement: demonstrating what human culture can create given a vast flat landscape plus nothing. Chicago is a great humanist monument. However, the city started with much more than a swath of northern Illinois prairie land. Louis Jolliet said to Father Jacques Marquette in 1673, "Here someday will be found one of the world’s great cities.” But when he said it, the two were looking out not just over a field of wild onions, but also over Lake Michigan. The lake reflects Chicago’s skyscrapers for only the space of a few ripples, and then stretches vast and blue for miles to meet the far horizon. The lake constantly reminds Chicago of the beauty of the earth: the inheritance on which humankind builds its own achievements.

Of the many big plans Daniel Burnham recommended to Chicago in 1909, perhaps the most important was to preserve the lakefront as public ground and as the city’s "one great unobstructed view.” As Lois Wille wrote, "they made a promise that this city, hustler from its infancy, would do what no other city had done...it would give its most priceless land to its people.” With their rose gardens, fountains, wildflowers and sandy beaches, the parks at the water’s edge make Chicago’s lakefront exquisite, and utterly unique. The Chicago skyline to the west, Lake Michigan to the east, and open and gardened acres for everyone in between: now that’s superlative.


Photos: Courtesy of Peter J. Schulz for "Skyliine at Dawn” and "Sears Tower”, Hedrick Blessing for "Chicago Cultural Center Interior”, Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau for "Thank Goodness It’s a Fossil!”, and "Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower”, Graphics and Reproduction for "Jazz Musicians”, Mark Montgomery for "Grant Park in Spring”, and Chris McGuire for "Oak Street Beach”.

Andrea Curry lives in St. Louis, the city that fought Chicago for the railroad in the 19th century and lost. She loves Chicago and visits as often as possible.

Tags:  Art Nouveau  Chicago  John Hancock Building  Sears Tower 

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